LOS ANGELES -- You can debate all the changes that would make the slam dunk contest better, but other than the near-universal agreement that the team format installed this past February should never be done again, there's only one surefire way to improve it:
Name DeAndre Jordan as a permanent contestant.
As incredible of a dunker as Blake Griffin is, the 6-foot-11 Jordan might be even better. But so far, Jordan hasn't been willing to enter his name in the dunk contest field.
"I don't want to go to All-Star [Weekend] to be like a dunk contest guy," he said. "I want to be there for a reason."
The Clippers big man has been saying the same thing long before anyone thought he had a realistic case to actually make an All-Star team.
"I think it's just pride," he explained.
Until this season, Jordan had been something of a project. He has so much athleticism and talent, but it didn't always translate on the court. There were stretches of play where you'd watch and think the four-year, $43 million contract he signed in 2011 would look like a bargain one day. There also were times where he looked like a young colt trying to figure out how to run. By the middle of last season, it seemed as if the Clippers might be losing their patience with Jordan. His name popped up in trade rumors with the Boston Celtics in February, and then again in June when the two teams began the talks that ultimately brought Doc Rivers to Los Angeles. In both scenarios, Jordan would've gone to Boston in a package that included veteran Kevin Garnett.
Deep down, though, the Clippers maintained the same faith in Jordan as he did in himself.
They were the club that drafted him No. 35 overall in 2008, when the rest of the NBA deliberated over questions about his attitude and maturity after an underwhelming freshman season at Texas A&M. And they were the team that matched the $43 million offer sheet Jordan signed with the Golden State Warriors, despite his never averaging more than 7.1 points and 7.2 rebounds in his first three seasons in the league.
The question was when that faith would be rewarded.
It just took an outsider like Rivers to see how it could happen, and to make him see it, too.
What Jordan needed was something to take pride in. Something real and specific that he could do better than anyone else: defense.
"He's important," Rivers said. "And he's important without us calling a lot of plays for him -- or no plays, in most cases.
"I think we all want that in whatever we do. When you have a place where you work, if people feel you're really important to them, I think you fall in love with your job. And, I think DJ did that."
Among all NBA centers, Jordan had the highest wins above replacement rating based on the real plus-minus system developed by Jeremias Engelmann and Steve Ilardi. His 12.18 WAR ranked eighth among all NBA players.
Jordan finished third in the defensive player of the year award voting this year. He was not happy about it. He wanted to win.
"Oh, yeah," Jordan said. "But like I said, I'm used to it. Ask my peers what they think? Ask my coach what he thinks?"
In the first two games of the Clippers' first-round series with Golden State, Jordan has been a monster on defense. He has averaged 11 points, 11.5 rebounds and 5 blocks. And for every shot he has blocked, he has affected dozens more. Just the threat of him protecting the rim has influenced the Warriors' dribble penetration.
"They announced that [Joakim] Noah won the defensive player award -- and he's a great defensive player -- but after I watched DeAndre [Monday], I don't know how he didn't win it," Clippers forward Danny Granger said. "He blocks everything that comes in the vicinity, and he's been doing that for us all year. It's almost like he blocks them with his elbows sometimes because he jumps so high."
Granger of course came over midseason from Indiana, where he played with the guy who finished second in the DPOY voting, Roy Hibbert. "Both are great defensive centers," Granger said. "Roy, at 7-2, he really didn't have to jump to block a lot of shots. He's just got to put his hands up. DeAndre, at 7-foot whatever he is, he can jump through the roof."
The key was making Jordan not just understand how much of an impact he could make in this role, but inspiring him to embrace it. It's one thing to accept something; it's another to love it and become it.
That's where Rivers came in. He didn't sell Jordan on this role as defensive captain, he told him he needed him to do it. That the team needed him.
For a player who really only needed to feel wanted after two years sitting out of the important moments of the game because the coaching staff trusted less-talented veterans more than him, it was exactly what Jordan needed to hear.
Oh sure, Rivers buttered him up with public praise in training camp before he probably deserved it. The Clippers sent him around in the preseason with Griffin and Chris Paul as sort of a "Big Three" even though Jordan's accomplishments didn't compare yet.
But that was as much for the rest of us as it was for him.
"Doc was honest," Jordan said. "You could just tell he believed in everything he was saying. He wasn't sugarcoating stuff. I think you can tell when someone's giving you a rehearsed answer.
"I think it's just feeling like you're wanted."